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Earthworks: Reflecting Art at the End of the 1980s

Artbound digs into KCET's vaults to uncover groundbreaking arts and culture programming from the 1970's, 80's, and 90's. Tune into KCET to watch Artbound Presents Flashback Moments: Artworks/Earthworks on Thursday, October 2 at 9 p.m. PST. Check local listings here.

Land art was a major art movement that rose to prominence during the 1960s and 1970s, where artists interacted with the land and the world around us. By 1990, the movement began to fade, but even today artists like Maya Lin and Eberhard Bosslet are creating pieces that commune with the land in similar ways. Land art uses the Earth -- that massive part of our every modicum of existence -- as a collaborator.

Lita Albuquerque, the first artist featured in KCET's "Earthworks" episode from 1990, held the notion of the Earth as a timeless object -- in her case, at the time, she was using dry lake beds in the desert as a canvas. For "Spine of the Earth," Albuquerque -- who rose to prominence in the early-1970s -- worked with students at Long Beach State University to lay pigment in a spiral on the desert floor at El Mirage Dry Lake. The work would become a seminal piece of early-1990s environmental art, and Albuquerque would re-interpret it during the Getty Museum's 2012 Pacific Standard Time Performance Festival with hundreds of volunteers holding the pigment above their heads at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook in Culver City. "It's using the earth as a blank canvas," she told KCET in this 1990 "Earthworks" episode.

Lita Albuquerque, "Spine of the Earth"
Lita Albuquerque, "Spine of the Earth"

Having come to renown for wrapping buildings in the 1960s and 70s, Bulgarian-born artist Christo and his then living Moroccan wife Jeanne-Claude were two of the most famous environmental artists by 1990, when they filmed the second portion of Earthworks, "The Umbrellas (Joint Project for Japan & USA)." The video, shot in Gorman, California, follows the artist as he prepares to install 1700 giant (20-foot tall, 29-foot diameter) umbrellas simultaneously in two inland valleys -- one north of Los Angeles and the other in Ibaraki, north of Tokyo, Japan. "They have a strong nomadic character. What we are really building is houses without walls," said Christo at the time, referring to his intent to reference painting, urban planning, and architecture, while at the same time comparing the two inland valleys.

The exhibition would open a year later, but on October 26th, 1991, a gust of wind toppled one of the 485-pound umbrellas, crushing a female spectator to death and injuring several others. Christo ordered the exhibition closed immediately, but another death occurred during the de-installation.

Christo, "The Umbrellas"

The next subject in "Earthworks" is the Crawford House, built by Morphosis Architects, led by a then-relatively unknown architect named Thom Mayne. Mayne would later go on to big things, but the Crawford House was really his first major undertaking. The house is a wonder, a circular residence that surrounds the grassy hillside landscape, never really reconciles interior and exterior space, while acting as an intermediary between sky and Earth. "I've always had the sense that, especially in this country, there this notion of man over nature, and the notion of the building, which supersedes the site, which is always placed on the site to communicate that it's more important the site," Mayne told KCET. "In this case, we were trying to find a balance. The building is surrounding the site, gathering the site."

The Crawford House propelled Mayne to prominence, and soon his designs were being built all over the world. Some of his most famous buildings include the San Francisco Federal Building (2006), the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration building in Suitland, Maryland (2007), the Perot Museum of Nature & Science in Houston, Texas, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Hall at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (2013). In 2005, Mayne won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the highest award for an architect in the world. So, it's especially interesting to see him talk so candidly about a private residence in Southern California on the show.

Thom Mayne's Crawford House

"Earthworks" then presents "An Excursion with Richard Misrach," following the already famous landscape photographer -- his book "Desert Cantos" had won the 1988 Infinity Award from the International Center for Photography -- as he wanders around, snapping shots of the Salton Sea. The Los Angeles-born Misrach drawls alternately about the formation of the mysterious body of water in the middle of the desert (an irrigation accident from the Colorado River in 1905) to why he was drawn to the disastrous site.

By 1990, Misrach says, the Salton Sea had transformed from the resort town it was in the 1950s to a symbol of death -- the high salinity in the water causes fish to die off at rapid rates, which in turn causes a rotten smell in its presence. The surrounding resort town became ruins, which was what attracted Misrach. "As opposed to photographing, like Ansel Adams going and finding these perfect, unsullied pearls of wilderness, I'm more interested in what we've done to the wilderness and that relationship," Misrach told KCET.

"An Excursion with Richard Misrach"

Misrach's most famous shots of the Salton Sea -- including "Diving Board" -- were actually shot in 1983-84, but the place continued to be a favorite location for Misrach. To this day, Misrach continues to photograph the relationship between man and environment. A year after this episode was shot, he would be included in the Whitney Biennial, and he would go onto receive several National Endowment of the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a mid-career survey at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in 1996.

"Earthworks" ends with Rachel Rosenthal doing a special excerpted presentation of her performance art piece "L.O.W. in GAIA" (1986), which she had recently done a full-version of at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in March of 1990 to a glowing review in the L.A. Times. L.O.W., she explains early on in the dramatic work, stands for Loner on Wheels, which she recalls getting called by an old man while on a solo road trip through the Mojave Desert. Monologue-ing directly into the camera on a spare set, the ever-wry Rosenthal proceeds to draw a 60 on her smoothly shaven head, her age at the time, while lamenting her aging spirit, and arranging cattle bones in the sand at her feet. "Of course, I'm not a dweller. I'm a tourist," she says of Gaia, the primordial personification of the Earth in Greek mythology.

Rosenthal was already a legend by the time this video was shot, having hung around with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg in the 1950s, before moving to California and becoming involved with the Ferus Gallery scene. Her "Instant Theater" at the Cast Theatre was a hit, and she later earned prominence in the 1970s as a member of the first wave of feminist artists. She retired from performing in 2000 to focus on animal rights activism, but she still paints in Los Angeles.

Rachel Rosenthal, "L.O.W. in GAIA"

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